Literature Review: Constituency service in Iceland (and other Nordic countries)

FOTO CREDIT:  S. Hofschlaeger /

Hlynsdóttir, E. M. and Önnudóttir, E. H. (2018) ‘Constituency service in Iceland and the importance of the centre–periphery divide’, Representation (forthcoming), DOI: 10.1080/00344893.2018.146733.

An average member of parliament in Iceland represents about 3850 citizens – making it one of the closest representative-voter ratios worldwide. How and why do representatives in this context bind with their constituency? This research question is addressed by Hlynsdóttir and Önnudóttir in their recent contribution in Representation. Making use of quantitative data from candidate surveys (gathered between 2009-2016) and qualitative information from interviews with former representatives (gathered in 2017), the article shows a center-periphery divide in legislative behavior: On the one hand, legislators elected in rural districts engage intensively with their constituency through contact with voters and local officials, by responding to requests and starting parliamentary initiatives on local issues. These activities often lead to cooperation across party lines in order to serve the well-being of the district. On the other hand, office-holders from the center, namely the three capital districts, do not develop such local ties. The authors argue that different understandings of their roles as representatives explain this contrasting behavior. Legislators elected in Reykjavik’s districts perceive themselves as servants of the whole people and constituency services are inappropriate according this role model, while their colleagues from the more rural districts understand themselves primarily as promoters of local interests in parliament.

The contribution is part of a special issue on constituency service in the Nordic countries. Further case studies on Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden enrich our understanding of the way representatives organize the relationship to their districts and potential explanations for such behavior. The findings clarify that – even in large districts electing multiple candidates per party – legislators invest considerable efforts into connecting with their constituency. However, Iceland seems to be the only country in which representatives organize beyond party lines similar to countries with single member districts such as Great Britain or the United States. While the special issue provides valuable and innovative insights into the region, as a comparativist, I wonder about the broader implications of the findings: What is the role of cultural traits in forming the relationship between legislators and their districts? In the case of Iceland, different role models ought to explain the strength of local ties between center and periphery. Potentially, cultural variation could also help us to understand patterns in legislator-constituency relationships over regions worldwide. Placing the findings in a comparative perspective would allow broadening the range of potential explanations for the intensity and form of constituency services beyond mostly institutional factors such as party systems, electoral incentives, and recruitment mechanisms.

By Corinna Kroeber in July 2018



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